Chiefs of the 5 Tribes

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Chief Satanta, Orator of the Plains

Perhaps the greatest of the Kiowa chieftains, Satanta was a brave and aggressive warrior. He was known for his daring assaults, personally leading his braves into the attack. The Kiowas were violently opposed to the building of the Union- Pacific railroad through their land and they united with other tribes to attack railroad crews. Known as the "Orator of the Plains," Satanta and his fellow Kiowa leaders, Lone Wolf, Kicking Bird, and Satank, led the Kiowas on wide-ranging sweeps through the Southern plains, striking quickly and disappearing into the open country on their swift ponies, often carrying scalps and driving settlers’ livestock ahead of them. Finally captured and sentenced to prison at Huntsville, Texas, Satanta committed suicide there on October 11, 1878. The following speech was delivered at the Medicine Lodge Council held on Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas in October 1867. His remarks were widely quoted, and even appeared in the New York Times. There were over 5,000 Indians gathered for the council from the Commanches, Kiowas, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and the Kiowa- Apaches. All the land south of the Arkansas belongs to the Kiowas and Commanches, and I don’t want to give away any of it. I love the land and the buffalo and will not part with it. I want you to understand well what I say. Write it on paper. Let the Great Father [the President of the United States] see it, and let me hear what he has to say. I want you to understand, also, that the Kiowas and Commanches don’t want to fight, and have not been fighting since we made the treaty. I hear a great deal of talk from the gentlemen whom the Great Father sends us, but they never do what they say....A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers; but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber; they kill my buffalo; and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting; I feel sorry. I have spoken. (7:180)

Satanta’s Reaction to the Treaty of Medicine Bluff:

"The white chief seems not to be able to control his braves. He sometimes becomes angry when he sees the wrongs his people commit on the red men, and his voice is as loud as the roaring wind; but like the wind, it soon dies away and leave the sullen calm of unheeded oppression... The white man grows jealous of his red brother. He once came to trade; he now comes as a soldier. He once put his trust in our friendship and wanted no shield but our fidelity; but now he builds forts and plants big guns upon their walls... He now covers his face with a cloud of jealousy and anger, and tells us to be gone, as the offended master speaks to his dog... You know what is best for us; do what is best. Teach us the road to travel, and we shall not depart from it forever. For your sakes the green grass shall not be stained with the blood of the whites; your people shall again be our people and peace shall be our mutual heritage." (Rister, 1944, p. 58)

Satanta ended by saying:


"Before leaving, as I now intend to go, I come to say that the Kiowas and Comanches have made with you a peace, and they intend to keep it. If it brings prosperity to us, we of course will like it the better. If it brings poverty and adversity, we will not abandon it. It is our contract and it shall stand." (Omaha Weekly Herald, Nov. 4, 1967)

The Omaha Weekly Herald, which reported that portion of Satanta’s speech, parenthetically commented that Satanta, "the old war chief of the tribe made a speech which we hope Ex-Gov. John Evans will read and inwardly digest. He will see in it how the red savages can instruct enlightened whites in lessons of fidelity to plighted faith."


Chief Satank

Satank (c.1810-71) was a chief of the Kiowas, along with Satanta. His Kiowa name Setangya, means Sitting Bear. Though respected by his tribe, his vengeful personality bred fear among his people. In 1840, Satank was instrumental in bringing about peace between the Kiowas and the Cheyennes, which allowed the two tribes to combine forces against the whites. In 1871, Satank, Satanta, and Cheyenne chief Big Tree raided a wagon train in Young County, Texas, killing seven white travelers. Satank was capture d, but on his way to trial tried to escape and was shot to death.

Chief Black Kettle

Few biographical details are known about the Southern Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, but his repeated efforts to secure a peace with honor for his people, despite broken promises and attacks on his own life, speak of him as a great leader with an almost unique vision of the possiblity for coexistence between white society and the culture of the plains.

Black Kettle lived on the vast territory in western Kansas and eastern Colorado that had been guaranteed to the Cheyenne under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Within less than a decade, however, the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush sparked an enormous population boom in Colorado, and this led to extensive white encroachments on Cheyenne land. Even the U.S. Indian Commissioner admitted that "We have substantially taken possession of the country and deprived the Indians of their accustomed means of support."

Rather than evict white settlers, the government sought to resolve the situation by demanding that the Southern Cheyenne sign a new treaty ceding all their lands save the small Sand Creek reservation in southeastern Colorado. Black Kettle, fearing that overwhelming U.S. military power might result in an even less favorable settlement, agreed to the treaty in 1861 and did what he could to see that the Cheyenne obeyed its provisions.

As it turned out, however, the Sand Creek reservation could not sustain the Indians forced to live there. All but unfit for agriculture, the barren tract of land was little more than a breeding ground for epidemic diseases which soon swept through the Cheyenne encampments. By 1862 the nearest herd of buffalo was over two hundred miles away. Many Cheyennes, especially young men, began to leave the reservation to prey upon the livestock and goods of nearby settlers and passing wagon trains. One such raid in the spring of 1864 so angered white Coloradans that they dispatched their militia, which opened fire on the first band of Cheyenne they happened to meet. None of the Indians in this band had participated in the raid, however, and their leader was actually approaching the militia for a parlay when the shooting began.

This incident touched off an uncoordinated Indian uprising across the Great Plains, as Indian peoples from the Comanche in the South to the Lakota in the North took advantage of the army’s involvement in the Civil War by striking back at those who had encroached upon their lands. Black Kettle, however, understood white military supremacy too well to support the cause of war. He spoke with the local military commander at Fort Weld in Colorado and believed he had secured a promise of safety in exchange for leading his band back to the Sand Creek reservation.

But Colonel John Chivington, leader of the Third Colorado Volunteers, had no intention of honoring such a promise. His troops had been unsuccessful in finding a Cheyenne band to fight, so when he learned that Black Kettle had returned to Sand Creek, he attacked the unsuspecting encampment at dawn on November 29, 1864. Some two hundred Cheyenne died in the ensuing massacre, many of them women and children, and after the slaughter, Chivington’s men sexually mutilated and scalped many of the dead, later exhibiting their trophies to cheering crowds in Denver.

Black Kettle miraculously escaped harm at the Sand Creek Massacre, even when he returned to rescue his seriously injured wife. And perhaps more miraculously, he continued to counsel peace when the Cheyenne attempted to strike back with isolated raids on wagon trains and nearby ranches. By October 1865, he and other Indian leaders had arranged an uneasy truce on the plains, signing a new treaty that exchanged the Sand Creek reservation for reservations in southwestern Kansas but deprived the Cheyenne of access to most of their coveted Kansas hunting grounds.

Only a part of the Southern Cheyenne nation followed Black Kettle and the others to these new reservations. Some instead headed north to join the Northern Cheyenne in Lakota territory. Many simply ignored the treaty and continued to range over their ancestral lands. This latter group, consisting mainly of young warriors allied with a Cheyenne war chief named Roman Nose, angered the government by their refusal to obey a treaty they had not signed, and General William Tecumseh Sherman launched a campaign to force them onto their assigned lands. Roman Nose and his followers struck back furiously, and the resulting standoff halted all traffic across western Kansas for a time.

At this point, government negotiators sought to move the Cheyenne once again, this time onto two smaller reservations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where they would receive annual provisions of food and supplies. Black Kettle was again among the chiefs who signed this treaty, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, but after his people had settled on their new reservation, they did not receive the provisions they had been promised, and by year’s end, more and more of them were driven to join Roman Nose and his band.

In August 1868, Roman Nose led a series of raids on Kansas farms that provoked another full-scale military response. Under General Philip Sheridan, three columns of troops converged to launch a winter campaign against Cheyenne encampments, with the Seventh Cavalry commanded by George Armstrong Custer selected to take the lead. Setting out in a snowstorm, Custer followed the tracks of a small raiding party to a Cheyenne village on the Washita River, where he ordered an attack at dawn.

It was Black Kettle’s village, well within the boundaries of the Cheyenne reservation and with a white flag flying above the chief’s own tipi. Nonetheless, on November 27, 1868, nearly four years to the day after Sand Creek, Custer’s troops charged, and this time Black Kettle could not escape: "Both the chief and his wife fell at the river bank riddled with bullets," one witness reported, "the soldiers rode right over Black Kettle and his wife and their horse as they lay dead on the ground, and their bodies were all splashed with mud by the charging soldiers." Custer later reported that an Osage guide took Black Kettle’s scalp. On the Washita, the Cheyenne’s hopes of sustaining themselves as an independent people died as well; by 1869, they had been driven from the plains and confined to reservations.